For me, the purpose of learning to bake and cook was to give me something to do in the wake of my mother’s literal wake. Someone told me that in the first 12 months of a bereavement, anything goes: literally any response is legitimate. My response was then, I suppose, underwhelming to those around me. I just sort of, continued. I went back to work pretty much straight away (in fact I traveled back down form Newcastle to London for a prior work commitment in between the death and the funeral), I didn’t turn to drink, I didn’t have a breakdown, I didn’t beat my fists on my chest in despair. I know my father worried about me, and I imagine so did my close friends. I was asked (with the absolute best of intentions) whether I was ‘taking it too well’. I wasn’t.
But the worst thing about death is the irony that life goes on. And that means that you have to go on too. This was where I turned to baking.
But how did I feel?
The writing and talking about grief and sadness is flooded (sorry) with metaphors and similes of water: drowning, flooding, waves of grief, being swamped, breathing underwater. This wasn’t my experience. All of the above seems too dramatic. The drama has already happened by the time the grieving process actually kicks in. A lot of what happens around death is tedious. The initial phone call is dramatic, sure, but the tears, the fatigue, the subsequent phone calls that you have to make to anyone who might have known the person, the appointments to be cancelled, the endless sitting around with cups of tea, the admin, the paperwork, the meetings with vicars, florists, undertakers, caterers, lawyers…even the crushing, ineffable sadness is, well, boring.
It may sound facetious to say that grief is boring, but the repeated experience several times a day, borne out of habit and muscle-memory, of going to phone someone who now can never be on the other end of the line, and remembering, re-realising that hearing their voice, their laughter, their exasperation, is no longer an option is tiring.
It is not that that realisation isn’t heartbreaking afresh each time. It is. It’s just that you become more used to the feeling. It no longer possesses its steely edge.
You are, in short, getting used to a new life that you did not choose, would never choose, and that has destabilised you: you feel unanchored, rudderless.
So, no, I didn’t feel as if I was drowning, I didn’t feel great waves of grief sweep over me. I felt like I was lying in a bath of cold water. Going wrinkly. There is no one there to tell you to come out. No one there to wrap you in a towel and make you feel better. Sure, there may be people there to support you, who can and will tell you quite literally to get out of the bath and wrap you in a big towel, but the cold, pruney, languishing feeling remains. I felt like I was just floating. I wasn’t sinking, but I wasn’t going anywhere; I didn’t even know where I wanted to go. The person who used to be my navigator wasn’t available anymore.
There comes a point when you have to get out of the bath and dry yourself off. My metaphorical towel was baking.
Baking gave me something to hold onto, at first, literally. Baking is a physical activity: it requires you to pick something up, beat it about a bit, and turn it into something else. Whatever you choose to do or make, by the end of it, you’ve achieved something. Even if you can’t get out of your pyjama bottoms. Even if you’re quietly ignoring phone calls because you are sick of the sound of your own voice, sick of being the bearer of bad news, when you petulantly feel like you shouldn’t have to apologise to one more person for telling them that your mother is dead. You’ve turned something boring (margarine is boring) into something quite lovely.
Happily, the result of this is often cake.
So, with retrospect, I offer the below as something to stabilise you, to stop up the constant dripping tap of loss, and to mop up grief.
I prescribe stodge for heartache, sugar for wobbliness, and potassium for fatigue. I therefore give you BANANA CAKE. But not just any banana cake: this is MY banana cake with a hidden surprise. I mean, you’ll know what it is. You made the damn thing. You ARE going to make this, aren’t you?
Why do people make banana cakes? Well 1. Because they are INCREDIBLY easy. 2. Because they have fruit in them and THUS are de facto healthy irrespective of their other contents and 3. Because there is something terribly grown up about peering into the cupboard and saying with a sigh ‘oh these bananas really are on the turn, but waste not, want not, I’ll just rustle up a banana cake for tea time!’ and then skipping gaily off to find some flour, and put on an apron, and pretend that the cat doesn’t have a cold, and the house doesn’t need hoovering, and your hair isn’t stiff with dry shampoo… because none of this matters as you are an ADULT who BAKES CAKES to prevent wastage of perishable goods.
And you throw your bananas into a bowl with some flour and sugar and a couple of eggs and a flourish and VOILA, it’s teatime and everyone now loves you because YOU’VE MADE this delicious beast out of something that was going to go in the bin which makes YOU THE QUEEN. It’s like having a baby except you get to eat it and it is better than a baby in every way.
So, here’s the thing. It LOOKS like a standard banana cake. It SMELLS like a standard banana cake. But, oh ho ho, my friend, this is no standard banana cake. Because SURPRISE it’s also got loads of Rolos in it. You COULD throw in a teaspoon of salt, and call it a salted caramel chocolate banana cake if you wanted to be zeitgeisty but that is too many words to say when you already have an inelegant gobful of cake, and you’d probably end up spitting banana-y crumbs over your listener.
When I have bananas that are slightly on the turn, I throw them into the freezer (whole, unpeeled). They will turn significantly browner, probably black and wrinkled depending how long you leave them in the freezer. I freeze them for at least a day, but they will improve the longer you leave them there. The freezing process breaks down the structure of the fruit, and when defrosted (which, incidentally, doesn’t take long, particularly if briefly plunged into slightly warm water first), they are soft, as if pre-mashed, but sweeter and almost more deeply banana-flavoured. Doing this has improved my banana cakes no end, and I commend it to you.
It goes like this:
Livvy’s Banana and Rolo Cake
Makes: One loaf
Takes: 1 hour
Bakes: 40-50 minutes
150g dark brown muscovado sugar
85g light brown muscovado sugar
3 bananas (must be overly ripe)
250g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 packets of Rolos
Handful of Demerara Sugar
1. Pre heat your oven to 180C*. Line your loaf tin with two strips of paper, one running the width of the tin, and one the length, both with grab-able overhang.
2. Cream the butter and sugars together using a standing mixer, handheld mixer, or a spatula and determination. When ready the mixture should be light and fluffy, and noticeably paler than when you began.
3. Measure out your flour into a separate bowl. Add the eggs to the mix one by one, fully incorporating each one in turn. If the mixture looks like it’s going to cuddle, add one tablespoon from your pre-measured flour, and continue.
4. Add the bananas one by one. Smoosh them into the mixture, so that they run all the way through, but not so that you lose all the lumps.
5. Fold in the pre-measured flour, the baking powder, and salt. Fold through the Rolos.
6. Spoon into the cake tin and give it a jiggle to smooth out the surface. Sprinkle with the handful of Demerara sugar.
7. Bake for 40-50 minutes, until the cake is set when carefully pressed with a fingertip, and doesn’t wobble when gently shaken. Leave to cool and then slice into thick slabs.
8. TA DAH!
The Icing on the Cake:
This is banana cake with rolos in it. What more do you want from me? Have it with a cup of tea, bask in the glory of austerity baking, and imagine what you’d look like wearing a crown.
*Does anyone not have fan-assisted ovens these days? I suppose aga users, but I somewhat doubt that someone who owns an AGA would be using my blog as any form of baking authority. They’re probably too busy drying their dogs in their oven and baking their towels. Or at least, that’s what I imagine you do with an aga. That’s why I want one.
[Edit: I have amended the recipe here to more accurately reflect that which I use most now, and the method of freezing and defrosting the bananas. The recipe is a combination of the original recipe which was here before, and a slightly reckless adaptation of Nigel Slater’s muscovado banana bread, which is glorious in its own right, but sadly lacks rolos]